August 18

Tips For Studying When You Are Chronically Ill

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Studying for anything when you are chronically ill feels like a monstrous task. Not only does your body work against you, but things like brain fog make it harder to retain any information you learn.

But it's not impossible – I promise. Hold onto that determination to further your education because I have some awesome tips to help you with any ongoing studies.  

The main tips for studying when you have a chronic illness include:

  • Using learning methods that allow you to study smarter and not harder,
  • Practising specific stress-reduction techniques, and
  • Ask for disability assistance from your school.

Like anything in life, studying requires balance. So this article gives you a list of specific tips that will help you study and some suggestions on how to care for yourself during this time. If you're physically and mentally exhausted – you're not doing yourself favours. You can use a combination of however many you need to help you get work done sufficiently.

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Study Smarter and Not Harder With a Chronic Illness

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Less is more when you have a chronic illness and need to study. You can take care of your health by using a few methods to study more efficiently

Create a Study Plan

Creating a study plan can help you map out when you need to get things done and by when without pushing yourself over your limit. It also makes the amount you need to study more manageable to get through without feeling too overwhelmed.

College workloads can feel overwhelming and cause stress flare-ups that can affect your chronic illness. Creating a study plan will help you delegate how much work you can do while avoiding stress and causing more health issues. I recommend planning your schedule every week. 

Remember to include everything and be honest with yourself. If you're more of a night owl, then don't fool yourself by saying you'll be up at 6 am every morning to study – it's just never going to happen.

Account for breaks, meals, exercise, doctor's visits and anything else you do daily. It's a good idea to: 

  • Establish your goals right now – what do you want to achieve and by when?
  • Allocate a realistic time frame to achieve each goal.
  • List all the subjects you need to study.
  • See what is required of you from each exam.
  • Narrow down what you need from each subject.
  • Order what you learn by the degree of priority.
  • Split your time into three parts:
        - Reading
        - Reviewing your notes
        - Creating study guides
  • Consider your work ethic – if you need lots of breaks, then account for it!
  • Hone in on your learning style – are you more a visual or auditory learner?
  • Tell others about your schedule so that they know what to expect from you.
  • Where you study is also super important. You need to be in an environment that is conducive to learning and working. If you're in a wheelchair or use any walking aids, you will find a lot of great ideas about how to set up your workspace here: How Can I Make My Office Wheelchair Friendly?

    Don't Cram the Night Before

    Cramming in as much material as possible the night before a big exam is terrible for your health and academic results – especially if you have brain fog. When you cram a lot of material into one study session, your brain tends to lose focus and not understand the concepts you're throwing at it.

    Your mind is more preoccupied with absorbing as much information as possible and not retaining it. Not to mention the stress it puts you under is crazy. And as you know – stress is one of the biggest contributors to flares and physical setbacks. Neither of which you can afford to have while you're studying.

    A build-up of stress can cause your physical and mental health to corrode, and you won't be as productive as you might like. 

    Avoid cramming by reviewing a few concepts each day, with particular attention to concepts you're having trouble with. Your physical and mental health will remain stronger, and you'll still be able to get enough study time.

    Make and Use Flashcards

    Flashcards might be an old study technique, but it's very suited to anyone with a chronic illness. Reading for hours at a time is an ineffective way to study if you're chronically ill. It can be mentally and physically taxing, not to mention unproductive.

    Flashcards are particularly effective if you colour-code your work as well. Not only are they easy to make, but they are easy to use when studying concepts that involve a lot of memorisation. And if your brain fog or memory loss is as bad as mine – this helps.

    You can go old school and use pen and paper to make them – or modernise them by using your computer. Either way, you'd be killing two birds with one stone since you'd be studying the material while making it.

    Once they're finished, you can break them out anytime and do quick study sessions during moments when you feel well enough to study.

    Colour Code with Highlighters

    Colour coding also helps fight brain fog or memory issues by making it easier to distinguish information pieces. The different colours make it easier for your brain to associate whatever is highlighted with that colour, and create a clear memory association.

    If you are a visual learner, then use the colour coding method as much as possible. It can be personalised to fit your needs. You can use as few or as many colours as you need and highlight as much or as little as you want.

    An additional benefit is that using highlighters also helps you keep focused on what you are reading.

    Take a Suitable Number of Credits

    One thing I have learnt the hard way during my own studies is to pace myself. It may seem like a good idea to get as much done as quickly as possible – but this simply isn't the fact. Slow and steady always wins the race.

    The number of classes you take plays a heavy role in how much rest you can take. That means the more credits you take, the less time you will have to get the rest you might need, and vice versa.

    So if you need half the amount of credits you take per year to ensure you get adequate rest – it's doesn't only mean you're prioritising your health, but you're likely to improve your academic performance too.

    If you are taking many credits but end up being overworked and underperforming, the purpose of learning can be taken away because of the workload.

    Use the Breaks Provided

    At the end of this article, I'll talk more about speaking to your lecturers or college about making special requests. But for now, here are a few things to consider:

  • Study online or through distance education so that you can take breaks when you need them. If you have the discipline, you might find studying from home is the best option for you, depending on what course you're doing.
  • Take advantage of college holidays to catch up on any work you've fallen behind on or get more rest after a strenuous semester.
  • Use your exam breaks to rest and have a snack – don't try to go over your work in your mind or build your stress up. Try to clear your head by focusing on your breathing, drinking some water and repeating affirmations that keep you in the zone.
  • Unfortunately, pushing yourself over the edge when you have a chronic illness can cause you to tap out for a few days, even weeks. During this time, taking care of yourself is more important than assignments, but they might still have to be done.

    Using the semester break as a catch-up period can help prevent you from falling too far behind with your studies since you have more time to complete tasks without extra things piling on.

    On the flip side, if you have been consistently working hard through the semester so far, use the semester break to, well, take a break. Rest as much as you can during the break time allotted and charge your batteries so you can be well enough to take on the rest of the semester.

    Supplement Your Diet

    There's no harm in stocking up on supplements or vitamins that your body may need more of during this time. You need to harness all the brainpower you can get – the more natural the methods, the better.

    To start, I would highly advise avoiding coffee or any caffeine products during this time. Not only does it make your brain fog worse, but it will also send you on many energy slumps throughout the day.

    Other than that, some great supplements that boost energy and body function include:

    • A sugar-free immune booster – keeps your body strong when it's weaker from stress (this usually includes high amounts of Vitamins A, B complex, C and E; Zinc;  Selenium; and essential amino acids)
    • Magnesium  – essential for muscle movement and regulating your nervous system by ensuring important messages are sent to and from your brain.  
    • Ginseng – one of my favourite supplements, and a lot of studies are proving why. It's shown to help fight fatigue, boost your energy levels, increase cognitive function and even fight inflammation.
    • Acetyl-L-Carnitine – an essential amino acid we need for brain function. The supplement is used to help improve memory, thinking skills and even help with Alzheimer's progression.
    • Omega oils – essential fatty acids, especially omega 3, helps fight anxiety, depression, reduce symptoms of ADHD and boost your brain health.

    All these supplements are great options, but just remember that:

  • Taking too much won't help. Anything your body doesn't need simply gets excreted (making super expensive urine).
  • Consistency is critical if you want to see any actual benefits.
  • Use Stress-Reduction Techniques To Prevent Chronic Illness Set-backs 

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    There are two types of stress that we can feel. There's the beneficial type called "eustress", which motivates you to keep working. And then there's also the bad type we all know as "distress", which has a terrible effect on your mental and physical health.

    As someone with a chronic illness, you will know how much elevated cortisol levels affect your wellbeing. A highly stressful situation can trigger a flare within minutes. So, it's no surprise that distress will impact your studies too.

    Chronically ill or not, distress is known to cause physical issues like chest pain, headaches, tremors, upset stomach, high blood pressure and back pain.
    When it comes to studying, it can also worsen time management skills, concentration, memory, persistent worrying, mood, social withdrawal, and self-sabotaging thoughts.

    Anyone who's stressed can experience these issues – so imagine how much more careful you need to be. 

    If this issue hits home for you and you'd like to do more about it – then I have the perfect thing for you. I have a FREE 7-day programme designed to help you cope with daily life after a chronic diagnosis.

    It comes with all the bells and whistles – activities, diagrams and a printable medical binder you can use to keep on top of your wellbeing. There's no catch and no hidden cost. It's here to help you. Follow this link to get started: 7 Days to Happiness Programme 

    Work in Short Bursts

    Studying in short bursts with lots of breaks is one of the best ways to reduce stress, especially when you have a chronic illness.

    There's only so much information our brains can receive in one go – especially with brain fog. Getting up every 45 minutes for a 15-minute break helps refresh your mind and rest.

    It might be counterintuitive with your personality to take regular breaks because it feels like a waste of time, but this isn't true. Rather be more receptive in shorter time frames than perpetually brain dead.

    You don't want to reach the end of the day knowing that you haven't taken your nose away from the pages and still can't remember what you've learnt because you're too tired. That will only make your stress worse.

    Another reason this is important is that it helps you move your body. When you take a break – get up and move.

    Whether you go to the kitchen and grab a snack, have a glass of water, go outside and stretch, you're allowing your body to physically destress and relieve tension too. I'm going to emphasise the importance of this if you have fibromyalgia.

    Eliminate Distractions

    A wandering mind is dangerous – I should know because I have one. It is one easiest ways to get trapped by distractions. Before you know it, you've halved your study time and doubled your distress because your stationary draw needed organising, right?

    Once again, this is important if your chronic illness leaves you with bad brain fog where it's easy to get up in the moment and completely forget what you were meant to do and why.

    So, this is about more than turning your phone on silent (which you should still do).

    It's about ensuring you have the tools around you to keep focused because a distraction could be ANYTHING.

    You can get some seriously good tips about how to do this in my article, 11 Ways to Stay Organised with Brain Fog, where I share exactly how I keep my focus. Just keeping a to-do list is not enough!

    Allocate More Time for Sleep

    Fatigue is one of the most significant issues when you have a chronic illness. Everything takes more effort and leaves you feeling more tired in the end – studying is no exception. In fact, it takes a lot more out of us than we'd care to admit.

    So be selfish with your time and allocate more to resting. There might be a million other things you would like to do, but this is a time to focus. Set proper boundaries around what you want and need to do – get rid of frivolous activities.

    You need all the energy you can get for brain power right now ­– and without sleep, your attention span will falter substantially.  

    It's proven that sleep is also essential because it is the only time your brain activity slows down enough to process all the information you have learnt that day.

    In this context, consider your brain like an enormous filing cabinet for information. At the end of every day – all the things you've learnt need to be stowed away. And your brain can elegantly compartmentalise new information and store it for you – but the catch is you need to be sleeping for this to happen.

    Assert Yourself

    Anyone with an A-type personality (myself included) will be guilty of undermining themselves and their capabilities. Part of what drives us is the fear that our chronic illnesses make us weaker and less capable.

    We feel that we're not smart or strong enough – and it's nonsense. We have different needs, but we're not less capable.

    Hammering these negative thoughts into your head only makes your distress worse. So you must watch your internal dialogue and stop talking smack yourself in stressful moments.

    There are two ways I like to do this, which I highly recommend:

  • Use positive affirmations
    I'm not talking about toxically positive nonsense, where you just tell yourself it's all going to be okay. I'm talking about real, honest and pragmatic affirmations specifically designed to help YOU and your condition.

    Here's one of my favourite articles that will give you all the ideas you need (and scientific proof that this will help you): 100 Affirmations for Chronic Illness That Actually Work (with Printables)

  • Get some music going
    Music can have such a positive effect on us that it's even used as therapy. It depends on the type of music you listen to and how you process it.

    But while you're studying, you need music that will keep you focused while you work and PUMPED when you take breaks. We do it when we work out our bodies. Our minds should be no different.

    Here are some playlists to help you out: 5 Chronic Pain Music Playlists Depending on Your Mood
  • Get Your Heart Racing

    I know the subject of working out when you have a chronic illness is tricky. We all have different needs and physical limitations. Using exercise to destress is not as simple as just going for a jog – if I did that, I'd probably end up back in my wheelchair!

    Still, we can't deny that physical activity, especially cardio, is an excellent way to help ANYONE manage their distress levels. If exercise is just not your thing – then skip over this suggestion. But if you like to get your body moving, then I highly recommend this.

    When I was in my wheelchair, one of my favourite ways to exercise was with hydrotherapy. It was the only movement I could allow myself, and it helped. 

    Today, I can easily do some yoga therapy for chronic pain, but I could never do cross-fit or anything wild like that.

    If all you can do is some arm movement and wiggling your toes – that's incredible. Just remember to keep moving. Better yet, go outside for a stroll and breathe in some fresh air.

    Stock Up on Snacks

    As a serial snacker, I was very happy to know that certain foods help build my brainpower while I study. Best of all, it helps you work with vigour when you use good snacks as a reward for completing your work. It's conditioning at its finest!

    The foods you eat can either help or hinder your brainpower, and it doesn't stop at snacking; it's all your meals. And some foods do make you stress more!

    Whole grains, lean meat, fruit and vegetables are all essentials that need to be part of your daily diet.

    Choose foods that you can digest slowly and give you sustainable energy over an extensed period so that your body doesn't crash halfway through the day – and are natural mood boosters.

    Some of my favourite brain-powered snacks include:

  • Dark chocolate (sugar-free with natural sweeteners like stevia)
  • Berries (blueberries, strawberries and raspberries are personal favourites)
  • Almonds, pistachios and walnuts
  • Raisins and other dried fruit
  • Hummus and carrot sticks
  • Apple slices with nut butter
  • Power smoothie with banana, dates, protein powder and nut milk
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • I know that getting into the kitchen is tricky when your energy is limited. Here is what I suggest if you want to try a healthier diet but are worried about how this kitchen activity will affect your chronic illness: 12 Energy-Saving Cooking Tips When You Are Chronically Ill

    Ask for Disability Assistance From Your School

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    The last tip that you should make use of is to reach out to your school's disability services. Most schools will have you fill out an application, but you will have unlimited access to the disability resources that your school provides after that step.

    I studied through The Open University of London and their disability assistance was excellent. Besides the administrative faculty being really diligent in keeping tabs on how I was doing, my lecturers were super understanding when it came to deadlines, extensions and any health-related issues I encountered.

    As long as I communicated – I was helped. 

    One of the main things they should provide you with are tools to make studying easier for you. For example, disability resources will be able to provide you with any physical aides you may need, including mobility aids and extended times for exams.

    If you have the option to get help from your college, taking it can make the entire experience much more manageable.

    Another way you can reach out for help is to get a tutor or study group to help you out during sessions.

    Having a tutor to study with can help maintain focus and make it easier to get help on subjects you may be struggling with. Likewise, a study group will allow easy access to assistance should you need it and also keep the environment-focused and productive.

    Final Thoughts

    Having a chronic illness and attending a college or university does make things a little more challenging, but it's not impossible. I genuinely believe that if I can do it – anyone can do it!

    I have tried and tested all the tips I've discussed here today. Each is useful and has helped me keep climbing the academic ladder and improve my skills for work. So I know that if you can take what's feasible for YOU from this article, mix it with whatever else helps you – you will have a fulfilling education and still be able to take care of yourself.

    Please keep in mind that your mental and physical health are the most important things to consider in anything you do. So before you bite off more than you can chew, know that each academic or work decision you make will affect your health.

    It's up to you to keep a mindful balance of your needs. Ask yourself regularly, "How am I?" "Is my body coping?", "What am I neglecting?" Your wellbeing isn't static – it changes. So remember to ask yourself these questions before you start a busy day.

    Finally, the most sincere advice I can give you is to not give up on learning or education if it's what you want. There was a time where I felt I should give up and do something else – but I'm so glad I stuck it through ­– for my mental health and my career. If you reach a speed bump in the road, it might be time to change your approach. But certainly not give up!

    Marina

    Marina Wildt is an experienced health and wellness writer, chronic illness warrior and founder of The Discerning You. In the last 12 years, she has gone from being paralysed in a wheelchair to living a full life alongside her conditions and now she wants to share all the practical advice that she has learnt with you.


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